Jul 10, 2007

East Turkestan: Kazakhstan No Longer Safe Haven

As co-operation between Kazakhstan and China increases, Uyghurs seeking refuge in this country find themselves in an ever more precarious situation.

As co-operation between Kazakhstan and China increases, Uyghurs seeking refuge in this country find themselves in an ever more precarious situation.

Below is an article written by Natalia Antelava and published by BBC News:

On a rainy afternoon, in a village near the Kazakh-Chinese border, an engagement party brought two families together. Women in colourful traditional dresses brought out dishes of meat and rice.

As the feast went on, guests toasted the new family and the future, but the songs they sang were about the past, and the land their ancestors had lost to China.

Uighurs, who are ethnically Turkic Muslims, share a history in which victims outnumber heroes, and stories of persecution overshadow tales of greatness.

For centuries, Uighurs fought the Chinese over the land they call Eastern Turkistan. But on the map it is called Xinjiang, and it lies in the north of China.

Over the past 200 years, millions of Uighurs fled wars and persecution and settled in Central Asia, but they never gave up the dream of their own land.

And that is a problem for Beijing. As some Uighurs continue to call for greater autonomy from China, Beijing says that their separatism is breeding terrorism.


Khader's story  

Terrified to be discovered by the Kazakh authorities, Khader, an asylum seeker from China, agreed to meet us in a secret location.

In a dimly-lit room, Khader and his friends showed us piles of paperwork - thick files of dozens of asylum seekers, with black and white photographs of men and women attached.

Some of them, they said, had been already deported to China, where many had been executed.

Khader's dark, restless eyes were full of deep and disturbing fear, but his voice was measured and calm as he spoke about his experiences in China.

"They never leave us alone. You go out in the street, you go to a market, and police just beat you. I grew up hearing the stories of my neighbours and family members being tortured in the Chinese prisons," he said.

"They call us all terrorists, but what makes us terrorists? Just the fact that we are Uighurs?"

Ten years ago, Khader attended a demonstration in his home town just across the border from Kazakhstan. The rally, which called for more rights for China's Uighur minority, was quickly broken up by the government.

Chinese soldiers, he said, killed his brother and chased him as he ran across the border.

Ever since then, Khader has been hiding in Kazakhstan. For a decade, he has survived with the help of the local Uighur community. But he has no passport, no identity documents and he has been unable to find a job or attain a refugee status.

The only dubious assurance of security he has is a $100 bill that he always carries in his pocket.

"This is what I give to the local police when they stop me. One day, when I can't bribe my way out, the worst can happen."

The worst, he says, is deportation. "I am not a terrorist, I am just a baker, but if I am sent back I will be killed - I will be hanged or shot," Khader said.


Disappearing haven

There are dozens of people like Khader hiding in Kazakhstan, many more across wider Central Asia.

Human rights groups are calling on the Kazakh government not to deport the Uighurs to China, but amid increasing co-operation between China and Kazakhstan, their message is getting lost. "Both the Chinese and the Kazakh authorities simply prefer not to turn this into a public problem. But the question is, what to do with these people who are hiding here, unable to get asylum? And there are women and children among them," Yevgeny Zhovtis, the country's leading human rights defender, said.

"At this point, I see no exit, no solution to this situation, because Kazakhstani authorities simply don't want to spoil their relationship with China." Beijing is an increasingly important investor in Kazakhstan. It also wants Kazakhstan's help in fighting what the Chinese government calls its own "war on terror" in Xinjiang. According to the Chinese embassy spokesperson in Kazakhstan, China does not need to be told what to do.

"Only we, the Chinese, know what is going on inside our country. We don't want the outside world to interfere. The Chinese government is working for the happiness and well-being of all Chinese," Wang Bing said.

Back in the village near the Kazakh-Chinese border, as night falls, hundreds of people pack a dilapidated village concert hall. The show, a display of traditional Uighur dance, is about to begin.

Young and old, women and men, watch mesmerised as girls in long purple dresses take to the stage. They sway and swirl to the haunting tunes of the traditional lute.

For generations, Uighurs have been free to perform here. Central Asia is where they have nursed their dream of independence. But China is now gaining control, and Uighurs are losing their safe haven.